Published Jul 01, 2000Heading into a club to check out a new band, the audience will likely provide you with enough visual clues to make clear just what kind of music will be happening onstage. In the case of a Kinnie Starr show, her fans provide cross-pollinated confusion: hip-hoppers, rockers, hippies, punks and dykes congregate and intermix. The diminutive woman who takes the stage is equally puzzling ? tattooed yet soft-footed, simultaneously swarthy and light, a self-described "ambient dub hip-hop [performer] with a feminist half-breed bent." The music starts and what Starr has to offer becomes perfectly clear: magnetism, massive verbal dexterity, opera-worthy lungs and a seemingly endless bounty of musical influences done up with skill and style.
When Starr first garnered national attention four years ago, her future seemed perfectly aligned. Her mishmash cross-fading of sounds, compelling performances and all-around music savvy make for a potent package, and national attention to her debut full-length CD Tidy and her cross-Canada "Scrappy Bitches" tour with Veda Hille and Oh Susanna meant plenty of business cards were being passed her way. She was one of the hottest talents in the country, destined for great ? and huge ? things.
Offers came from every direction, and Starr signed, in her words, a "stunning" record deal with Mercury U.S. Now, after four years of work, frustration, recording and re-recording, Kinnie has finally emerged with a new album, called Tune-Up. The album, on her own Violet Inch label, is a new beginning for Starr, and the end of a long journey through major label hell. The years in between have seen a "lost" album, called Mending, the end of her deal with Mercury and almost the end ? by her own hand ? of her career in music.
In the earlier days of Kinnie's career, the singer got her share of comparisons to other pigeonholed women in rock'ers: Bif Naked and PJ Harvey-like sounds bled their way onto Starr's first tape, 1994's Learning To Cook (which showed incredible spark, particularly one of the sexiest gender-bending anthems on record, "Handsome Like A Man"). Although that tape was literally made during her musical infancy (she'd played guitar for less than a year at that point) the art form was a natural extension of her poetic and rhyming talents. For Starr, it was about words, about inspiring foremothers and forefathers (she cites groups including De La Soul, MC Lyte, Black Sabbath and Kyuss as inspirational) and it was especially about breaking through preconceived barriers when it came to music and live performance. An early "inspirator" was fellow Vancouverite Bif Naked, who Kinnie says taught her about not just emotionally blurring the line between her and her audience, but physically crossing it, more often than not ending up mid-performance smack dab in the middle of the dance floor.
"When [Bif] was in Gorilla Gorilla years back, she just jumped off the stage in a tiny mini-dress," Kinnie recalls fondly. "She was a big gorgeous girl, so fucking tough, so cool. She went into the audience that was singing her lyrics and she bit one of the guys on the neck. I was just mesmerised!"
Another much-loved Kinnie trait comes from the under-heralded British hip-hop group Urban Species, who exchanged not only rhymes but also languages in rapid-fire succession. On 1996's Tidy, that influence shone brightly through; on cuts like the joyful jam "Praise," she rhymed and sang in three different languages (French, English and Spanish) often in the same sentence, something she still does today.
Just as easily as she flips between languages, so does she interweave musical styles. Fans of hip-hop (particularly old school) are drawn to her ability to freestyle, as well as her talent at creating sweet ambient, dub and trip-hop melodies. Folks looking for a more alterna-view also had plenty to embrace, whether it came from her electric guitar grinds or jam-friendly band. And all of those sounds were especially refreshing coming out of the mouth of a fierce, fast feminist who describes herself as a "skinny little half-breed."
Since Tidy, there have been plenty of live shows, but few releases: a remix of her confrontational and compelling spoken word "Buttons" (a story of a woman's reaction to unwanted sexual attention) by West Coast rhythmatists Hellenkeller; and a seven-inch for "Woven," both on her own Violet Inch Records are all that money can buy. But it's her brand new record, Tune-Up, that makes Starr beam. That disc, she explains, was a long time coming, but worth the journey. It's the culmination of her musical evolution and harsh lessons learned ? made completely her own way, put together with her own money and released on her very own label.
"The objective with this record was to make something that felt as close to home as possible. The bass tones are unbelievably thick, there's a lot of Wurlitzer, it's heavily inspired by dub, the vocals are totally free and absolutely first and second take. The idea is to capture a mood. I didn't want to make a record that had to have singles, I wanted to make a record that I liked, and I did."
While Tune-Up is definitely the work of an ever-evolving artist, long-time fans will be happy to know that it retains some requisite Kinnie-isms, including the positive-sounding opener, "Nearer," some pull-no-punches liner notes ("Tell other women! Protect each other! Don't use tampons!") and of course, the aforementioned diversity of style. Perhaps the most striking difference in Tune-Up is also the most hidden: the way the songs were written.
"I just wanted to make a record that symbolised new freedom, and it was really important to me that I use my own programming. People always assume that the men take care of the technological end. Definitely I didn't make this record alone; I have a really awesome crew making that record possible. I needed it to feel really warm and sexy; it just has this pulse. When I listen to Lou Reed or Neil Young or De La Soul, those records have sonic consistency. I really wanted to try that. Besides," she adds honestly, "I would say my sampler actually saved my life!"
The journey Starr has taken ? from acclaimed independent artist to hot major label signing back to independence ? began in 1996, when word of Kinnie's magic began to spread like wildfire. Although she had been playing live for less than a year, by the time she hit a Toronto music conference, the buzz was so high that every suit from all over the U.S. and Canada was in attendance, business cards at the ready. She met with 18 labels at first, and narrowed it down from there.
The whole thing seemed like a dream. Starr was being handed the reins, and was able to negotiate a deal where she had the artistic freedom to do whatever she wanted. Or so it seemed. "I thought three or four years ago was a time when things were changing. Whoops!" she laughs, shaking her head. "That's called naiveté. I was in a position where I was putting my trust in people that I should not have; some in the industry, some were people I was playing with. I had to learn by fire."
When Starr eventually signed, it was a deal with Mercury Records stateside, the company that seemed most interested in having her music and unique self at the forefront. "They let me make the record I wanted, they didn't interfere at all. Where everything went wrong was in the merge."
"The merge" may not sound deadly, but it changed Starr's life. When Universal music was sold to Seagrams, several smaller labels, including Mercury, Polygram and others, were folded into the Universal umbrella; the subsequent restructuring, for employees and artists alike, was brutal. "Everyone at Mercury got cut except two artists: me and Steve Poltz," says Kinnie. "There were still people at the label that really got [my music], but there was a lot of people, too many, that were like What the fuck is this?!'"
The whole thing came to an ugly head in 1999, just after the restructuring. Starr had been in the pressure cooker from the label, trying to please them musically while still maintaining her integrity. The messages she got from the company started to get clearer and clearer. Rather than give her finished record a release date, new label reps tried to shape the release more and more to their liking. "It was about de-politicising me. Options were made available,' like taking my songs to radio, and remixing them till they sounded like generic person x. They wanted to redo the art, but we never really got that far. It was something like Hey Kinnie, here are some choices for you: slick videos, slick photos.' Homogenising me."
She tried some of their suggestions in an attempt to see their vision. "I'm not adverse to trying things and bailing. I thought I can fucking do this, if Jewel can do this.' I can wear the makeup and do the fucking posters and videos where you're crawling around in lingerie. I sorta did think that a) the people at the label would get what I was about, and b) that they would see that what I was doing was equally as appealing or more so. I really thought that I was in my territory for awhile, which was dumb because I was totally out of my element."
Exhausted physically and mentally, for the first time in her life she started thinking seriously about quitting music completely. "I had migraines almost every day. I saw so much distrust and hatred in some people's eyes. Everything felt like too much." She was sent down to the much-hyped South By Southwest conference in Austin to play for her new label, but by that time, she had already had enough. "I was a total mess. I had pneumonia. I was so sick. Sick from the pressure, sick from sadness, sick from not understanding, sick from for fighting control. And then there are all these drunk record execs who want to see a show.' They don't want to see some half-breed Canadian in their face with a mike asking them about farts, which is what I did, because I was just so... ARRRGH! I just didn't give a shit. For sure I was reacting. That's the only way I really know how to do things my whole life, is fucking balls out."
The label reacted back, hard and fast. "It all became pretty clear right after that. I got news that I had done a really poor job, and the disc got taken off the release schedule right away. That's when people from the label started saying She's not hungry.'"
Things got nothing short of nasty after that. Promises of label support were broken, touring funds were cut off at the last minute (including a series of dates opening for Alanis Morissette), and the company refused to let her out of her contract. Finally ? only late last summer ? her lawyer discovered a loophole that propelled her back to indie-land. "People sent me emails saying Oh, it's so sad that you've been dropped' and yet I woke up the next day and literally jumped out of bed. My headaches went away within a week. It's so terrible and sad that so many artists think that that's how they are going to make it,' how they are gonna find happiness, how they are gonna have an easy career. Everybody hears All major labels are bad' but no artists know why. They don't understand that their lives are gonna be made more difficult, that they are gonna have to beg for money.
"It's lack of respect for the creative community," she continues. "They don't care how it's gonna affect you as an artist psychologically. Those corporate infrastructures are not acting in the interest of the artists. I mean, I got a stunning record deal, and I still couldn't do shit fuck all. It's really important that people know their lives are gonna be a lot fucking harder."
Even just reflecting on it, Kinnie's body language changes, and her voice and demeanour tense up. When her physical change is pointed out, she looks both exhausted and on the verge of tears. "I feel all that sadness and frustration coming up; I did the best as I could under the circumstances. It's very mentally challenging for me to try and remember details. I think Mending is a beautiful record."
For those who lament the "lost" disc, there is some good news ahead. That album will be released by Infinity Records in Japan (a small hip-hop label), as well as Jeepster in the U.K.
With this drama firmly in the past, she can say without question that she'll continue making music. This new found freedom has her bursting with enthusiastic plans, in addition to upcoming tours here and overseas. "I'd like to make an instrumental dub record. I also want to do a guitar record, a Gillian Welsh kinda finger-picking record. I want to do a piano record too. Before, I was just so anxious to get it all out, now I realise that there's no time line. Once we let go of all the pressures we put on ourselves as artists, we get better at doing more of what we want to do."